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From Apollo to Artemis: back to the moon and Mars?


On Saturday, July 20, 2019, 50 years have elapsed since the landing of Apollo 11 on the sea of ​​tranquility and this historic moment in which Neil Armstrong gave "a small step for man, a giant leap for humanity ".

But the emotion lasted a short time. The interest for the Moon decreased as the landings became more common and samples of the lunar soil were multiplied. In fact, by the end of the year, on December 19, the world will be able to celebrate the 47th anniversary of the last lunar landing, by Apollo 17. Since then, no human has not set foot on the moon The lack of progress and associated loss of skill sets has been a source of frustration for many members of the space community, and criticisms have appropriated the inability of NASA to offer a credible and profitable strategy to take advantage of the successes of the Apollo program. .

Now the human journey is about to begin again, with a recent commitment of the Trump administration to return to the Moon in 2024 under the Artemis project. Instead of just flags and footprints, new landings on the lunar surface will also set up a small lunar-orbital space station called "Moon Gateway" to support future missions, which in turn will support a possible human landing on Mars at the end of the 30s. There is recognition to the space community that the Moon is not only a logical step on Mars, but also a basis for building and sustaining a space economy that would fund more ambitious goals in the coming decades. Returning to the Moon will facilitate the development of the abilities and abilities necessary to allow humans to put themselves at the foot of the red planet in the 2030s.

The plan for Artemis has an impressive resemblance to the concept in which Apollo was successful, although technology has clearly passed. NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) – the "big reinforcement" launched by the Orion ship to return astronauts to the moon reflects the ability of Saturn V in 1960. Orion is a slightly larger and more advanced vehicle than the "module of command and service "of Apollo.

Unlike 1969, in 2019 there is no formal race declared formally. The policy on space policy of President Donald Trump, of December 11, 2017, forces the United States to return to the exploration of the human space beyond the Earth's orbit. The administration of Trump has accelerated the original calendar of the return to the Moon in 2028 until landing around 2024 and, at this time, is looking for a woman on the moon.

The decision to accelerate the return aligns with Trump's internal political agenda and was launched in the context of the increase in Chinese space activities. As I pointed out earlier, Beijing has serious plans of "taikonauts" on the lunar surface during the 2030s. It is conceivable that delays in the American program may encourage China to accelerate its own calendar to prove its long reinforcement of March This would give him an opportunity to win the international prestige that would be to beat the United States to the Moon. Then there will be a new career. NASA would be forced to respond under pressure from both the White House and an ambitious Chinese space program.

Now, the real career, however, may be between NASA players and commercial spaces like SpaceX and Blue Origin, who have ambitious plans for their lunar missions. For example, Space Starship / Super Heavy propeller and spacecraft proposed by SpaceX will be totally reusable and can fly around the Moon in 2023.

It is the innovative approach of commercial space operators that contrasts so strongly with the confidence of NASA in the thought of the Apollo era. SpaceX and Blue Origin emphasize the total or partial reuse of the launcher, which drastically reduces the launch costs compared to the fully consumable NASA SLS. (It is estimated that SLS will cost 1,000 million US dollars per launch and can be launched only once a year as of 2021).

Using the use of fuel in orbit, SpaceX Super Heavy can deliver 100 tonnes to the lunar surface, compared to only 45 tonnes for the NASA SLS in its most powerful variant, the Block 2 load, which can fly to end of 2020. More than a race on the Moon, it's a race to innovate, and the private sector is clearly the winner.

The space environment is also much more competitive now than in 1969. Other space powers – India, Japan and Europe – are looking at the moon and the potential wealth it offers. Like China, they have a second-hand advantage in the United States. During the successive administrations, the United States does not have a coherent space policy, which constantly changes between the policies of "Mars first" and "moon first".

Meanwhile, massive overcurrents and delays in the SLS have contributed to the feeling that the USA is drifting away from space, far from the decisive days and driven by goals of the early 60s, when President John F. Kennedy goes to say:

[W]and choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are tough, because this objective will be used to organize and measure the best of our energies and abilities, because this challenge is one that we are willing to We accept, one that we are not willing to postpone, and that we also want to win, and the others.

In the same way that in the sixties, however, plans for the return to the Moon are being done in the context of increasing military competence in space, which divert resources from space exploration humans But it is a much more complex environment. China and Russia are developing counter-spatial capabilities designed to deny access to the United States and its allies to essential space systems. The US and others are reacting with new approaches to ensuring access to space, for example, the United States is considering the potential to establish a space force at the beginning of the next decade.

Returning to the Moon is not just a matter of money. But a more complex and controversial space environment increases the risk of financing of Artemis. NASA is receiving much less funding than in the Apollo era. The Apollo program cost $ 25 billion between 1961 and 1973 (USD 153 million in 2018 dollars). The totality of the budget allocation of NASA in 2018 was only US $ 20.7 billion, which must support other projects, as well as exploring human spaces, including new missions and not manned; aeronautical research; work in earth sciences such as research and education on climate change; and administrative costs.

In the 1960s, Apollo had money thrown. In the years 2020, Artemis tries to match this objective and do more, in a comparative challenge. If the US hopes to achieve and maintain the goals of Artemis, the significant funding of NASA will be essential, or they will have to bite the bullet and take a walk with commercial rockets on the moon.

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